The Language of Relationships

I’ve been wanting to write a post about this for awhile, but somehow it never happened. It’s been in the back of my mind for long enough that I actually searched through my posts before I wrote this, wondering if I might already have said what I’ve been thinking about. Ever have that happen in a conversation, when you’re not entirely sure whether you actually said something or only thought about saying it when you were rehearsing the conversation in your mind? No? Maybe that’s just me… Forget I said anything.

So the Language of Relationships. Yes, I know. Unnecessary capital letters. That’s just the way I said it as I was typing it. This is sort of a combo life/writing topic, because I think it’s something we need to be aware of when we’re writing, especially with dialogue, and all too often, I think it gets overlooked. Writers go to endless lengths to get the jargon in their books right, whether their characters are police officers or doctors or computer geeks or florists or maids or milkmen. And I’ve seen both brilliant and obvious efforts to get dialect just so, even to the more-than-slightly-painful point of characters explaining their use of it, along the lines of “No, it’s a boot, not a trunk. We’re in England now.” But what about the personal influences on the way we speak and think?

Relationships of any length and depth, whether they’re close friendships or marriages or family ties or love affairs, develop a language all their own. It happens effortlessly, over time and with shared experiences, and I love that. I think it’s a lovely reminder of the depth and history of a connection every time you automatically use a phrase that no one outside the relationship would understand, or, if they did, wouldn’t know the significance of within the bounds of the relationship.

Sure, there are all the nicknames, the pookies and sweeties and dears and honeys. But what interests me, what always makes me stop for an instant of gratitude for having someone of such long-term importance in my life, are the everyday bits and pieces, the phrases and quotes and ways of expressing things we’ve absorbed and re-use over and over so that they become part of the fabric of our relationship.

If my family or my best friend’s family happens to be roasting a chicken for dinner, our answer to “what’s for dinner?” is always, “I cook a chicken,” said in the slightly staccato tone her grandmother, whose first language was French, would use to say just that when she was roasting a chicken.

In my house, there are a handful of pop culture quotations that have become part of our everyday language. Some of them may make sense to you, others not. But even if you know the source, the associations, the memories associated with them, are the thing that make them part of the common parlance at our house. A few of those? Thirty-four fifty. I do not think it means what you think it means. Death by tray….

And of course, there are the more personal ones that develop all on their own, ranging from the romantic to the ridiculous. The people I share them with know what they are, but I’ll keep them to myself here. Too difficult to explain, for one thing. Too silly, if they’re not yours, for another.

So how do you bring something so personal to your characters’ relationships and still have it make sense to the reader? Maybe the difficulty of doing so without tiresome explanations is why I don’t often notice much of it in the novels I read. But I think it’s something to consider including, in small amounts, where context would lend enough understanding to avoid explanation. I think, done well, it can lend authenticity and depth to your characters’ relationships. It certainly adds depth to the real ones. The challenge, of course, is not alienating the reader by locking him out of the POV character he’s going along with on the story. Can it be done? I think it can, with care. What say you?


  1. A Novel Woman
    Sep 1, 2010

    I love this post!

    I have no idea what “thirty-four fifty” means but Youngest says it all the time, with an accent! Clearly I am not cool enough to know. However, the second one is from Princess Bride and the third one is crazy Eddie Izzard.

    We do a lot of Monty Python in our house (Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition! and watery tarts and moistened bints lobbing scimitars) and no one can say “it’s possible” without someone else chiming in, “Pig.” Drives the Mister crazy.

    I think inside jokes and nicknames and the like build intimacy between people, whether couples or families, at least for the most part. However, sometimes it can be used to exclude others. It can also be used as a testing ground to see if a new person is a good fit – you see this with sports teams and the “new guy” who has to prove his worth first.

    It’s an interesting notion to be sure. You’re right, it does add depth to fictional characters. However, the last time I noticed it was not in fiction, but in Julia Child’s book about her life in France and her relationship with her husband. Ah, what a love story…

    • Kathy
      Sep 7, 2010

      Very interesting point, anovelwoman, about the exclusion aspect. I wasn’t thinking about that at all when I wrote this, but that is certainly a factor too. I’ll have to read that Julia Child book. One more for the TBR pile!

  2. Deb
    Sep 1, 2010

    So, true. Language, whether written, verbal, or body speaks a lot to the depth/breadth of a relationship. Sometimes, it’s what’s not said that resounds loudest.

    I call all my children by one name–defense mechanism to avoid outraged accusations of preference for one child over another when I inadvertently called one by another one’s name. Call them all the same name, and not one has reason to complain. *g*

    Lovely post, Kathy. And great to see you online again. :)

    Take care,

    • Kathy
      Sep 7, 2010

      Ha! So true, Deb. When I was a kid, we got used to being called by some combination of “sibling-dog-own name” by my dad. One name might’ve been easier. :)

  3. camille
    Sep 1, 2010

    It’s funny that you wrote about this today Kathy. I just finished editing a novel (of mine) where I found a way to include some of the “relationship lingo” and I really liked it! I thought it brought a different level to the relationship in the story…but you’re right–it’s tricky to get it in, while “showing” and if you begin to explian it, it often turns to a long “tell”. So keeping it functional and showy are the key points I believe…I sincerely hope I can figure out how to do it again!

    • Kathy
      Sep 7, 2010

      Good for you for finding a way to include it, Camille. And finished editing? Congrats!

  4. Cindy Bouchard
    Sep 1, 2010


    I adore all things ‘relational’! The ties that bind us together are – to me – the spice of life.

    I believe it takes listening and caring enough to truly, deeply listen… to hear the language others are speaking.

    Are we listening to our characters? Hmmm, that’s one to ponder now!

    Thanks Kathy

    • Kathy
      Sep 7, 2010

      Thanks for stopping by, Cindy. Excellent point about listening being the key.

  5. The Striped One
    Sep 2, 2010

    I know what you mean. The kids & I always quote comics and people look at us weirder than normal. Our new one is “I hear the bell!” which will make no sense to any one else but us three & our one co-op friend. You’d have to watch the whole stand-up routine for it to make sense and our sense of humor is *not* what most people like. I am sure you’ll hear me/us say it soon enough.

    I personally don’t think you even have to explain a colloquialism in your novel. You can have the character say it and then say to the person they were talking to something like, “It’ll take too long to explain and it won’t be as funny since you had to be there,” and that is end of it. Let the reader think up their own meaning for it.

    I like the little sayings that family’s have. It makes it really cute when one person says the line & another family member either smiles or shouts out the reply. Smiles. :-)

    • Kathy
      Sep 7, 2010

      Hey Stripey. I’d have pegged you for quoting Star Wars, but comics make sense, too. See you soon!